Last Update: December 14, 2023
You can’t have a conversation about Italian cuisine without mentioning pasta. According to the Italian Association of Confectionary and Pasta Industries, (Aidepi for short), the country produces more than 3 million tonnes of pasta annually, with the average Italian eating roughly 51 pounds of pasta per year. It’s estimated that there are roughly 350 shapes and 1,300 dialect names—a complex history explored in Rachel Roddy’s cookbook, An A-Z of Pasta: Stories, Shapes, Sauces, Recipes, where she describes pasta shapes as “edible hubs of information: flour and liquid microchips containing huge amounts of data, historical, geographical, political, cultural, personal, practical.” Wheat might be the most traditional ingredient, but today’s modern options—made with everything from lentils to cauliflower—mean pasta is always on the menu.
Italy Magazine explains that pasta shapes are in service to the sauce that best pairs with them. Shape and texture are paramount for this marriage of ingredients, and many regions have developed their own shapes over the years. “For example, bigoli (thick, noodle-like spaghetti) are from Veneto; strozzapreti (meaning, ‘priest strangler’) are from Emilia-Romagna; trofie (perfect with pesto) are from Liguria, and orecchiette (or, ‘little ears’) are from Puglia.”
We don’t have access to as many unique shapes in the U.S. (unless you make it yourself), but you can still master the art of pairing the right pasta shape with the correct sauce. And if you ask an Italian chef, it’s paramount. “When you have a pasta that doesn’t necessarily pair well with a specific sauce, parts of the sauce might slide off, and you’ll end up eating a noodle without the maximum amount of flavor,” says Tal Ronnen, founder and chef of Crossroads and author of New York Times bestseller, The Conscious Cook.
Penne is a quill-shaped pasta that was developed in 1865 when a new device patented by Giovanni Battista Capurro arrived in the small town of San Martino d’Albaro, near Genoa. The machine allowed tubes of pasta to be cut diagonally, eliminating the need for scissors. There are several types of penne, but the most popular is penne rigate, a shape with ridges running along the surface that’s ideal for chunky sauces or baked recipes.
Translating as ‘thin strings’, spaghetti is one of Italy’s most iconic pasta shapes. Since this shape doesn’t cling to chunky sauce as well as others, it’s best suited to lighter preparations like carbonara (an egg-based sauce), puttanesca (a tomato-based sauce), or seafood sauces.
Fusilli is a short, twisted shape popular in Southern Italian cuisine. Its name is associated with a tool used to twist wool (the “fuso”), and fusilli is perfect with meat-, ricotta-, or pesto-based sauces that can cling to the coil.
Rigatoni is all about the ridges. This shape has a wide, cylindrical surface and forms short tubes that can handle thicker sauces. Similar to penne rigate, rigatoni pair well with chunks of vegetables and meat, as well as pestos.
Tagliatelle’s origin story is a bit of a mystery, but legend goes that the pasta was first made at a banquet held by Giovanni II of Bentivoglio in the 15th century. The head chef took sheets of pasta (normally used for lasagna) and cut them into ribbons, supposedly to pay homage to the flowing blonde hair of one of the guests in attendance. Regardless of whether or not the story is true, Italians love tagliatelle, a shape that lends itself to pairing with hearty beef and pork ragù.
Get ready to explore the wide world of gluten-free pasta. With ingredients like garbanzo beans, brown rice, and lentils rather than wheat, it’s not only easier than ever to enjoy your favorite recipes with fewer carbs than traditional versions, but you’ll enjoy an added nutritional boost as well. Here are some of the brands that Thrive Market members swear by.
Chickapea Lentil Pasta Shells
Tolerant Organic Green Lentil Rotini
Thrive Market Brown Rice, Quinoa, and Cauliflower Rotini
Cybele’s Free to Eat Superfood White Rotini Pasta
Use regular noodles or swap in gluten-free—it’s up to you. Either way, these family-friendly pasta recipes are weeknight winners.
Comfort in a bowl. This one-pot recipe cuts down on clean up and uses chickpea noodles for a gluten-free twist featuring creamy mascarpone cheese, tender mushrooms, lots of Parmesan, and peas and spinach for added nutrition.
Raid the pantry for this easy 20-minute recipe made with canned white beans, briny olives, and salty capers.
Embrace zucchini season with our summertime pasta salad recipe that adds extra protein from chickpeas and brightness from lemon juice. This recipe travels well and can serve everyone at your next picnic.
Spice things up with a gluten-free pasta dish that’s primed for sharing. Every bite is extra rich (thanks to a dash of cream) and a little bit boozy (thanks to vodka).
The key to perfect carbonara is finishing the pasta in the skillet so it can combine with a luscious egg sauce. And don’t be shy with the cheese! Sprinkle each bowl liberally for maximum flavor.
This superfood-fueled dinner starts with a classic pesto recipe (featuring basil and garlic) then layers in a scoop of chlorella powder to boost nutrition, avocado for creaminess, and pistachios for nuttiness. Toss everything with your favorite noodles!
When you’re ready to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, add that bottle of red to your pasta for a rich, adult-only sauce.
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